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Introduction to Wisdom Literature


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Title: Introduction to Wisdom Literature

Introduction to Wisdom Literature
  • BIB509

1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Certain books within the Hebrew scriptures
    stand out as significantly different from the
    narrative and legal material comprising the
    Pentateuch as well as from prophetic and
    apocalyptic literature. This alien corpus is
    altogether silent with regard to the dominant
    themes found in the rest of the Bible, for
    example the promise to the patriarchs, the
    deliverance from Egypt, the Mosaic covenant, the
    centrality of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty,
    the prophetic word, and so forth. Crenshaw,
    Wisdom Literature Biblical Books, 1

1 Introduction
  • 1.2 In the place of such emphases one finds
    ideas and literary forms that are closer to
    certain Egyptian and Mesopotamian works. That
    literary corpus contains a rational principle of
    the cosmic order that is worthy of study (hmkx in
    ancient Israel, ????? in Egypt, me in
    Mesopotamia) and expresses a belief that conduct
    in accord with this principle brings well-being.
    Or the literature gives voice to various levels
    of doubt about the validity of this understanding
    of reality, a skepticism spawned lifes
    inequities. Since study of the underlying
    principle of the universe rather than
    proclamation of the divine word comes to
    prominence here, modern scholars designate these
    texts as wisdom literature. Crenshaw

2. Definition Terminology
  • 2.1 . . . formally, wisdom consists of
    proverbial sentence or instruction, debate,
    intellectual reflection thematically, wisdom
    comprises self-evident intuitions about mastering
    life for human betterment, gropings after lifes
    secrets with regard to innocent suffering,
    grappling with finitude, and quest for truth
    concealed in the created order and manifested in
    Dame Wisdom. When a marriage between form and
    content exists, there is wisdom literature.
    Lacking such oneness, a given text participates
    in biblical wisdom to a greater or lesser
    extent. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom An
    Introduction, 16-19

2. Definition Terminology
  • 2.2 "Biblical wisdom was a dynamic in ancient
    Israel that operated in three dimensions the
    personal, universal, and literary. The personal
    dimension was characterized by both theological
    and practical categories. The universal dimension
    dealt with the ultimate categories of theology,
    explaining wisdom as an attribute of God Himself.
    the literary dimension was merely the vehicle of
    the wisdom movement, inscripturating the
    propositions and precepts of wisdom for
    posterity." Bullock

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.1 The Saying "The Saying is a sentence
    normally expressed in the indicative mood, and
    usually based on experience. Three types . . .
    the Proverb, the experiential Saying, and the
    didactic Saying." Murphy

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.1.1 "The Proverb draws a conclusion from
    experience and formulates it in a pithy, succinct
    way for such a conclusion to become truly
    proverbial, it must gain currency among a people.
    . . . It would appear that very few popular
    proverbs have been preserved in the wisdom
    literature at least, it is extremely difficult
    to make a case for certain sayings as having been
    popular proverbs before they were collected for
    the book for Proverbs."

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.1.2 "An experiential (or observational) Saying
    merely presents some aspects of reality. It tells
    it "the way it is," and leaves the practical
    conclusion(s) for the hearer/reader to draw. . .
    . Such sayings, therefore, remain open for
    further verification, even for limitation. They
    are essentially tied to the experience from which
    they derive, and to the tradition (handed down
    among those who found them meaningful) that gave
    them status and importance." Murphy

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.1.3 "The didactic (or learned) Saying goes
    beyond a mere statement about reality it
    characterizes a certain act or attitude in such a
    way as to influence human conduct. Some value is
    being inculcated, and this can be done in several
    ways. . . ." Murphy

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.2 Commands and Prohibitions
  • "The sage instructed not only by offering the
    lessons enshrined in sayings. He also imposed his
    will by a Command (imperative or jussive mood) or
    by a Prohibition. These commands and prohibition
    appear in the genre of Instruction. But they also
    appear in isolated form in Proverbs and
    Ecclesiastes. At times the command will be in
    parallelism with the prohibition, and both are
    saying the same thing. . . ." Murphy

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.3 Instruction
  • "The genre of Instruction is found consistently
    in "the words of the wise" in Prov 22.17-24.22,
    that bear a resemblance to the Egyptian
    Instructing of Amenemope. The same genre receives
    a certain development in Proverbs 1-9, where the
    units are much longer than the customary
    prohibition and motive clause that characterize
    22.17-24.22." Murphy

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.4 Disputation
  • "The formal elements of the dispute between Job
    and his friends derive primarily from three
    domains. Wisdom instruction provides both
    isolated individual forms and the "disputations
    of the wise," found in Egyptian literature and
    presupposed by I Kings 10.1ff. The legal system
    provides both the individual forms associated
    with a legal action and the "litigants' addresses
    to the court," since the judges were often
    trained in wisdom schools. Cultic poetry
    furnishes mostly the rhetorical and stylistic
    forms used in laments and hymns." Fohrer

3. Wisdom Genres
  • 3.5 Summary-Appraisal Formula - Appeal to Ancient
    Tradition (See Habel on Job and B. Childs on
  • 3.6 Reflections
  • "The Reflection is characteristic of Ecclesiastes
    . . . . The term designates a text that is
    characterized by observation and thought, and
    hence has a fairly loose structure. It will
    utilize phrases such as, "I said in my heart"
    (1.16-17 2.1, 15 3.17), "I gave my heart to
    know" (1.13, 17 8.16), "I saw (again)" (1.14
    2.14, 24, passim), "I know" (1.17 3.12, 14
    etc.), and rhetorical questions (e.g., 2.2, 12,
    15, 19, 22, 25). The Reflection will actually
    incorporate sever subgenres, such as a saying or
    proverb (2.14 4.5-6, etc.). . . ." Murphy

4. Wisdom Sitz im Leben
  • 1. "The first possible is the home, where
    parental instruction would have been imparted to
    the children and would have been oral."
  • 2. "The second possible setting is the school,
    where a teacher-student relationship would be

5. Thought World of Wisdom
  • 5.1 "The most striking characteristic is the
    absence of elements generally considered to be
    typically Israelite the promises to the
    patriarchs, the Exodus experience, the Sinai
    covenant, etc. . . the rule salvation history
    is absent from the realm of wisdom. Another way
    of putting this is to say that wisdom is an
    international heritage in which Israel had a
    share." Murphy

5. Thought World of Wisdom
  • 5.2 "One can indeed distinguish between saving
    history (Exodus, covenant, etc.) and an
    experiential attitude toward lifes daily events.
    But this distinction existed in the one Israelite
    individual who worshipped yhwh and denominated
    yhwh as God. Those same Israelites ultimately
    canonized the Wisdom Literature as a genuine
    expression of their traditions. . . . The fact of
    the matter is that there is no incompatibility
    between the saving God of history and the God of
    human experience." Murphy

5. Thought World of Wisdom
  • 5.3 "Biblical wisdom is basically religious, not
    secular. The fateful distinction between
    religious and secular, sacred and profane, so
    widely accepted in modern culture, has been
    applied in much too wholesale a fashion to the
    Bible." Murphy

5. Thought World of Wisdom
  • 5.4 "There seems to be a general consensus that
    biblical wisdom connotes a search for "order".
    That is to say, the sages held that there was a
    fundamental order in the world, discernible by
    experience, and the teachings were designed to
    bring about conformity with this order that had
    been determined by God." Murphy

5. Thought World of Wisdom
  • 5.5 Koch argued that wisdom taught a unique
    concept of reward/punishment ". . . there is no
    retribution or intervention by God rather, deed
    and result are mechanically related. An evil deed
    produces an evil result a good deed produces a
    good result. Hence Koch speaks of a
    "destiny-producing" deed the Lord does not
  • "Instead, one should recognize that the OT
    sources present retribution from two points of
    view both divine intervention and
    destiny-producing action. There is no evidence
    that one view is earlier than the other or, for
    that matter, more religious than the other.
    Certainly a cardinal affirmation in the Bible is
    the primary activity of the Lord in all that

5. Thought World of Wisdom
  • 5.6 The doctrine of the sages, especially as
    expressed in Proverbs and in the speeches of
    Jobs three friends, easily give the impression
    of a rigid dogmatism. This is misleading. The
    sages believed in their teachings, and like all
    teachers expressed themselves in such ways as to
    gain adherents. Exaggeration is one mode of
    convincing students. When one turns to the books
    of Job and Ecclesiastes, there is no escape from
    the hard questions that are put to the reigning
    wisdom orthodoxy. But even here one has to
    acknowledge that these hard questions arise from
    within the wisdom movement. Murphy

6. Wisdoms Contribution to OT Theology
  • 6.1 Wisdom Creation
  • Creation and Salvation Isa 44.24-28 51.9-10
  • Creation Doxologies Amos 4.13 5.8-9 9.5-6
  • Creation in Wisdom literature Job 38-40 Prov 8
    Pss 8, 19, 54, 104 Qoheleth
  • "When creation doctrine is not valued in and for
    itself, there also wisdom is treated as
    marginal." Murphy

6. Wisdoms Contribution to OT Theology
  • 6.2 Wisdom Experience
  • "One cannot describe the biblical Wisdom
    Literature without trying to understand the
    experience that lies behind it. The sayings, or
    the wisdom teaching, are the encoding of a
    lived experience, and only facets of this
    encounter with reality can be captured in words.
    It is the encounter which generated the insights
    into the world and human beings." Murphy

6. Wisdoms Contribution to OT Theology
  • 6.3 Wisdom Moral Action
  • "Akin to the wisdom experience is the "way" which
    wisdom urges the Israelite to walk in. The most
    common word is derek (about 75 times in
    Proverbs), but it is often interchangeable with
    )o4rah9, as in the phrase, way of life (Prov
    219 56 623 1524). This is the way that
    leads to, or secures, life in the full sense,
    prosperity and a relationship to the Lord. The
    way itself is the conduct which incarnates the
    teachings of the sage honesty, diligence (Prov
    104 2614), self-control (1417 151), a sense
    of responsibility (1026 272327), etc."

6. Wisdoms Contribution to OT Theology
  • 6.4 Wisdom Skepticism
  • ". . . the problem of divine justice becomes the
    problem for the sages. . . . . it is hard to deal
    with adversity that can find no reasonable
    explanation. A human standard of justice is
    applied to God, and it does not work. This
    situation is often termed the "crisis" of wisdom
    (Crenshaw 1985a 381), and the books of Job and
    Ecclesiastes are the prime evidence. But it can
    be just as well argued that these works prove the
    resilience of the wisdom movement, which did not
    skirt problems, even if it could not solve them.
    The scepticism of these books is in conflict
    with the retribution theory of Proverbs (and of
    Deuteronomy and other books, one may add)."

6. Wisdoms Contribution to OT Theology
  • 6.5 The Personification of Wisdom
  • "Participating in the divine mystery is the
    figure of Lady Wisdom which appears in Job 28
    Proverbs 1, 8, 9 Baruch 3944 Sirach 24 Wis
    77918. It is better to speak of
    personification than hypostasis (Marcus 195051).
    Personification is no stranger to the Hebrew
    Bible. Justice leads Israel out of Babylon (Isa
    584) in Ps 8411 kindness and truth meet,
    justice and peace kiss. Wine is arrogant (Prov
    201). But the personification of wisdom is
    simply unique in the Bible, both for its quantity
    and quality."

6. Wisdoms Contribution to OT Theology
  • 6.6 Wisdom Immortality
  • "It has been observed often enough that the goal
    of wisdom is life (Murphy 1966). That is to say,
    life in this world, marked by prosperity and
    blessing, a fullness of days until one was
    finally buried with the fathers. The Hebrew world
    displayed a remarkable resignation to the
    inevitability of death (e.g., Psalm 49).
    Nonetheless it gradually became a problem with
    the sages. The thought of Job is constantly
    hovering between life and death, light and
    darkness (3223 101822 141020)."

7. Extra-Biblical Wisdom
  • 7.1 Extra-Biblical Wisdom
  • 7.1.1 "Israels ceaseless search for knowledge,
    divine presence, meaning, and survival was part
    of a larger quest in the ancient Near East.
    Scattered allusions within the Hebrew Bible to
    the wisdom of the Easterners and the Egyptians
    (Genesis 418 Exodus 711 2 Kings 430 Heb.
    59-10 Isaiah 1911-15) have assumed greater
    force again and again as literature form Egypt
    and Mesopotamia has come to light. Similarities
    between the Israelite wisdom and that of her
    powerful neighbors to the south and east abound,
    but decisive differences also exist." Crenshaw,
    Old Testament Wisdom An Introduction, 212

7. Extra-Biblical Wisdom
  • 7.2 Wisdom in Egypt
  • 1. "Egyptian wisdom functioned almost exclusively
    at the royal court. Its aim was to provide proper
    education for future bureaucrats in the pharaohs
    court. Accordingly, this literature largely
    assumed the form of instruction (e.g., the
    Instruction of Ptahhotep, the Instruction of King
    Amenemhet to His Son Sesostris, and the
    Instruction for Merikare) and its setting was
    usually the scribal school (praise of which
    occurs in Papyrus Sallier, Papyrus Anastasi, and
    the Instruction of a Man for His Son)." James L.
    Crenshaw, "Wisdom Literature Biblical Books"

7.2 Wisdom in Egypt
  • 2. Extends from 2800 to 100 BCE From the Fifth
    Dynasty (Prince Hardjedef) to the Ptolemaic
  • 3. "For convenience, Egyptian sapiential
    literature may be divided into text which
    consciously endeavor to inculcate traditional
    morals and practical lessons from experience, and
    those which challenge societys givens because of
    adverse social changes that have rendered life
    hazardous at best." Crenshaw, Old Testament
    Wisdom An Introduction, 212

7.2 Wisdom in Egypt
  • 4. The fundamental concept which underlies these
    Instruction is maat, which may be translated as
    justice, order, truth. Crenshaw, Old Testament
    Wisdom An Introduction, 214

7.2 Wisdom in Egypt
  • 5. It is the divine order in the world into
    which a human being is to be integrated by his
    conduct. Success in this process of integration
    means prosperity failure means chaos. This
    harmonious integration into maat underlies the
    teachings. Roland E. Murphy, Wisdom in the
    OT, Anchor Bible Dictionary, CD-Rom Edition,
    (New York Doubleday, 1992, 1997)

7. Extra-Biblical Wisdom
  • 7.3 Wisdom in Mesopotamia
  • 1. "In Mesopotamia the study of school texts also
    played an important role, but the fundamental
    feature of wisdom was cultic, indeed, magical,
    and the goal of wisdom was to manipulate the
    paraphernalia of the cult in order to ensure
    ones existence." Crenshaw, Wisdom Literature
    Biblical Books, 1
  • 2. "Here, as in Egypt, writing and schools
    flourished already in the 3d millennium b.c. In
    the Sumerian e-dubba (house of tablets) or
    school, the scribes copied out in cuneiform signs
    many types of literature, some of which may be
    compared with Hebrew wisdom. Several collections
    of proverbs (many bilingual, in both Sumerian and
    Akkadian) have been published along with various
    literary types such as fables." Murphy

7.3 Wisdom in Mesopotamia
  • 3. "As was the case with Egypt, there is a
    reflective literature in ancient Mesopotamia that
    has suggested comparison with Job and
    Ecclesiastes. Discussed in this literature, the
    issue is a perennial one, namely that of
    suffering, and especially the suffering of the
    righteous. . . ." Murphy

7. Extra-Biblical Wisdom
  • 7.3 Hellenistic Literature
  • 1. "Sophia, or wisdom, is of course a well-known
    concept in Greek philosophy and literature.
    Alexanders conquest of the Fertile Crescent in
    the 4th century b.c. ensured the flourishing of
    Hellenistic culture which had already begun in
    the area (Hengel 1974). . . ." Murphy

7. Extra-Biblical Wisdom
  • 7.4 Uniqueness of Israelite Wisdom
  • 1. "Old Testament Wisdom differs from its ancient
    counterparts in certain key respects. First,
    Israelite Wisdom in the canonical context
    unwaveringly integrates faith into lifes daily
    details. In these books the fear of the Lord is
    the beginning (Prov 1.7) and sum total (Job
    28.28) of wisdom regardless of that wisdoms
    particular arena. When trying to separate early
    from late Wisdom traditions in Israel, some
    scholars differentiate between secular and sacred
    material, with the former type considered the
    older of the two. The belief that secular Wisdom
    gradually moved toward religious expressions is
    an unproved developmental view of this
    literatures emergence. The canon makes no such
    distinction. Rather it always makes ones
    relationship to God the reason one is able to
    become wise. Everything one does proves or
    disproves ones relationship with or fear of the

7.4 Uniqueness of Israelite Wisdom
  • 2. "Second, Israel confessed that only one God
    exists. Thus only one God is able to inspire or
    impart wisdom. God possessed wisdom before the
    foundation of the world, which his status as
    Creator demonstrates (cf. Job 28 Prov 8). The
    Old Testaments insistence that the one God is
    the Creator undergirds all Wisdoms theological
    formulations. As Creator and only deity, the Lord
    is the only source for wisdom that allows human
    beings the means to let faith permeate life. Thus
    Israels desire for successful living parallels
    that of other countries, as does its use of
    particular literary tools for satisfying that
    desire. But its means of achieving that goal
    clearly diverges from its neighbors." R. House,
    Old Testament Theology, (Downers Grove, Illinois
    InterVarsity Press, 1998), 425
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